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Language program jump-starts students studying abroad

Media Contact

Melissa Osgood

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Students in the Sahara Desert in Morocco

Tanzania, Honduras, Thailand … Cornell students span the globe in public engagement projects and study abroad. Last year, students working overseas to provide safe drinking water, manage flooding and provide support in hospitals had an extra boost from Jumpstart courses, a new language program designed just for them.

One-credit, one-hour-a-week Jumpstart courses enable students going abroad during the summer or winter break to feel prepared for the countries they’re visiting, says Richard Feldman, director of the Language Resource Center (LRC). “With more than 40 languages offered by the College of Arts and Sciences, students across the university can get a thorough grounding for study abroad, but with short-term projects students often haven’t had a chance for in-depth language learning.”

According to Cornell Abroad, 2,208 Cornell students traveled to 108 countries in the 2013-14 academic year to study, conduct research or participate in a faculty-led experience as part of a Cornell program, so LRC Jumpstart courses fill a critical need.

“The recent increase in short-term study at Cornell, such as winter break study abroad, has brought about the need for these courses,” says Feldman, as students going on full semester or yearlong programs generally have prepared with language study in advance.

The Jumpstart curriculum recognizes that vocabulary and grammar are only one component of language education. The courses also offer cultural orientation to allow students to feel more comfortable and to behave in culturally appropriate ways, including an emphasis on awareness of cultural differences and cues.

“There are many simple things that one needs to understand just out of pure safety and respect for those in another country that, if I would not have taken this course, I would not have learned,” says Mariela Garcia Arredondo ’16. She studied Thai in preparation for a Global Environmental Service Learning course, Global Citizenship and Sustainability: Social Dimensions of Water Resources Management in Thailand.

Feldman notes that the goal of Jumpstart courses isn’t for students to master a language. “The goal is to give students an idea of the linguistic issues involved and to make them aware of the assets they can call on, like cognates” (words that look and mean the same in English and another language).

Happiness Patrick Bulugu, a senior lecturer in Africana studies and instructor of Kiswahili, taught students greetings according to age, relationship and setting. “The different greetings are very important in Swahili culture because they build good rapport, especially for foreigners,” she says.

The specialized vocabulary students learned during Jumpstart courses was also important. Students taking part in the annual AguaClara winter break trip to Honduras learned Spanish engineering terms specific to the water purification systems they’d been working on at Cornell.

The alternative to learning the language you’ll need overseas is, of course, speaking English. But even that, it turns out, is a skill that must be taught.

“The problem with Americans abroad is they don’t know how to speak English to non-Americans,” explains Feldman. “They speak in idiom, as fast as they want, and feel it’s easy. But there’s an ethic and a style to speaking to non-native speakers; you have to help and do extra work – it’s a collaborative operation.”

Although the College of Arts and Sciences offers instruction in more than 40 languages, the LRC’s Shared Course Initiative increases access to less-commonly taught languages through videoconferencing and distance learning technologies, in partnership with Columbia and Yale universities. This program brings 11 more languages to the Cornell curriculum, such as Hungarian, Tamil, Ukrainian and Zulu.

Another LRC initiative, supported by the Language Education Council and the vice provost for international affairs, is Foreign Language Across Curriculum (FLAC), which supports students’ use of foreign language skills by adding a foreign language section to a regular course. The FLAC program offers discussion sessions that link content knowledge with language acquisition, offer insights into foreign cultures and area studies, provide experiences of analyzing texts in the original language, deepen technical and content-specific vocabulary, and aid in the preparation for study abroad and outreach programs.

The LRC supports language learning and teaching across the entire university. At its physical language lab, located in Noyes Lodge, students using the facility’s practice vocabulary while overlooking Beebe Lake falls.

Along with traditional study carrels, the LRC operates audio and video production and videoconferencing facilities and hosts Web Audio Lab (WAL), an extensive online language resource. WAL, created by Russian language teacher Slava Paperno with staff members of the Academic Technology Center and the Language Resource Center, allows students to record their responses on their own computers and have them automatically uploaded for teacher review. The application efficiently allows students to practice listening and speaking on their own in languages including Spanish, Japanese, Zulu, Russian, Chinese, Yoruba, Tamil, Bengali and French.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.